African Roar 2011: A Writer’s Lot by Zukiswa Wanner

(This review of short story #3, is my fourth post on African Roar 2011.  I will be blogging about all the fourteen short stories in the anthology.  My introductory post is here.  Please click on the “African Roar 2011″ tag at the top of the article to see all related posts on this anthology.)

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The narrator of  A Writer’s Lot is an young writer from Johannesburg who is in a spot of trouble.  His first publication was well-received:

When I set out to write Township Stories, I was a township boy, a Wits dropout, who never imagined the book would get as big as it has… I thought it might be read in Cape Town. Never thought it would go international let alone be translated in all major UN languages.

Some Western journalists, based on just this book, refer to him as “one of the literary torchbearer in post-apartheid South Africa”.   (One must not pass up an opportunity to author labels to any new trend in Africa).  He receives lots of attention from those international journos “trying to show me and the rest of their readers in the Global North just how liberal they are”.  He complains of exploitation .  The sexual kind, he doesn’t mind.  In fact, a pretty big side benefit is the “amacherrie who suddenly want to know me”.

Particularly, the reading Model C Types who would never have looked at me twice when I passed them before… Because of the literary groupies and the number of women I have shagged since my book came out, I have begun to think of myself as the thinking groupies’ kwaito star or house DJ….I’m actually getting intelligent women not video groupies.

But he can’t abide what he describes as intellectual exploitation:

They would do interviews and earn megabucks selling the story of who they think I am.  They would ask me for a short story, and I, bloody excitable fool that I was, excited that I was getting an international platform, would write it and never ask for payment or when I got payment, it would be measly while they got rich off the sweat of my brow – or mind.

To top it off, his peeps think he is loaded. He IS the big international writer.  But he can’t confess that he is yet to received a royalty cheque five months after the book has been published.  And when the cheque arrived, “he cried..publishers really have a talent for screwing first time writers in the arse.”

The requests for interviews keep coming and he keeps granting them against his better judgment.  After all, he is “already well-known all over the country by the people who matter”. A Scandinavian journalist emails him asking for an interview and a free tour of Soweto.  He obliges but declares “pay me, motherfucker, pay me!”.  And that marks the beginning of his troubles. He vows to write through his misfortune, using his new situation as fodder for his stories.

A Writer’s Lot was fun to read.  Clearly this young writer is in over his head, over-taken as he is with international and local expectations  – to speak for Africa, to write Africa, to play the part of the big man. He admits that he should have “pulled a JM Coetzee and (said) ‘I don’t do interviews’”.   But how many can walk away from a soapbox?

These days there is so much talk about what African writers should write about and how they should represent Africa. Some writers are trying very hard to slay the old masters while others are accused of writing “poverty porn”.  Some are sick of the weight of the label “African writer”.  Writers who live on the continent versus writers in the Diaspora. Nationalist, post-nationalist, post-global, post-world…and on and on it goes.  The labels, the agendas… It seems we’ve entered a new phase of African writing and folks are falling over themselves to say it is such and such.  Have we really?

Sitting here in Accra , I’m slightly amused by all the talk. The situation is this: Africa does not produce enough writers and Africans don’t read enough books.  We need a whole lot more writers to tell all our stories that need telling and in as many ways and genres.  Hopefully, we will develop more writers and the terms “African writing” and “African writers” will be as commonplace as dust on a Harmattan morning.  In the meantime, as the narrator of A Writer’s Lot suggests, writers should be wary of all the attention, wanted or not, deserved or not.

This story is my first introduction to the work of Zukiswa Wanner though I’ve known about her for a while now.  I quite like the attitude and speak of the narrator, and the relaxed flow of the narration.  An enjoyable read.  I would like to read her novels sooner rather than later!

(African Roar 2011 is currently available at Amazon.com as a kindle e-book.)

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12 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this short story, it went to and ended in a place that you wouldn’t have expected and you write a great review for it.

    On the subject of African writers at home and in the Diaspora having clashes in view points, I think it’ll be fantastic just to get the conversations started.

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  2. Enjoyed this review, and I love the way you’ve cut through to the heart of the matter. The framework of labeling is often based on Western traditions of literature, and it’s primarily marketing-driven rather than based on a rigorous analysis of the local literary landscape, so setting much store by it isn’t actually the best idea, right?

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  3. I thought this story was sad but amusing, and loved reading your thoughts. It seems like there is often a spokesperson chosen to speak for news and journalists about each event, and it’s always interesting to think on the dynamics on who is or isn’t paid for these things. Also, how hard it can be for writers to actually live off their craft!

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    • That’s what many people don’t realise – the barriers and obstacles to being a writer and how very few can afford to live off their royalties. The story is well-written and I loved his voice, his conceits but also his realism.

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  4. Well said, Nana. These writers look at Africa through the glass, not with their naked eyes and are in no position to be authorites on Africa and her ‘woes’. Beyond the poverty, and the grime, there is joy and pride in being African. Personally, I will never trade Ghana and Africa for that matter, for anywhere in the world.

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  5. This story and your review hints or explore something that has been on my mind for a long time. It looks like today’s African writers, and I used the word advisedly here – meaning any writer of African descent for I do not believe in an Africanised writing form or structure, tend to make themselves speakers for the continent, good or bad. A writer suddenly grants an interview and start talking about the economics of Africa, something she/he might have no idea of, might have read nothing about. But she/he is a writer and an important one of course so it is her/his rightful duty as an ‘important’ person to speak for the continent.

    Another issue is when writers in the diaspora decides when to be African and when not to be. Africa has become a label that sells; a tag which when attached to a write appeals to the west so that whereas a diaspora writer will never step a foot on the continent, let alone on her/his homeland, she/he wants to set all his books on the continent, a place she/he hardly knows. I will still call a book written by an African based outside the continent whose work is set anywhere apart from the continent an African book, irrespective of the subject. But will that give them the money? Will an African writing about Thanksgiving in America appeal enough to them? No, so to sell their books they choose to be African because the hot subject matters – the ones that sell, the poverty, the wars, the hunger, the stories which begin in a three-hut village somewhere in Africa and ends in Harvard or Cambridge or any of the luxurious cities in Europe (aside universities) – showing that the character came from a humble background and had grown to acquire the developed Western tastes and therefore needed to be patted on the back – these stories are here on the continent. Personally, I see this trend as pathetic. With the exception of one or two writers, most of them stay out of their countries, and contribute nought to its development except criticism. Perhaps if they all could come and push, the mountain will move.

    I’ll end here so as not to hijack your thread.

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    • You go ahead and hijack my thread. As usual, you raise very good points and I know these African writers in the Diaspora speaking for us gets on your last nerve. As more of our writers choose to live on the continent, I see this issue becoming a hot topic. Yeah for African lit.

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  6. fun read, i agree, and yet definitely cutting (especially the opening pages) and loaded. Wanner’s voice is ridiculous, just mad swag. and interesting, insightful reviews ms. Kinna, and such an awesome, awesome site, i just admire your love for reading.

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